Review: Retro City Rampage: DX (3DS eShop)

A Blast From the Recent Past

About one year ago, Vblank Entertainment released Retro City Rampage on WiiWare. While it had also been released in other forms, it served as a notable last breath for Nintendo's first serious digital marketplace. It was a solid game that we enjoyed with some reservations, but the developers made no secret about the unlikelihood of turning a profit with the WiiWare version. It was a labour of love, and considering how much nostalgic fondness for Nintendo's golden age was packed inside, proved to be a perfect fit for the service.

Of course, since then we've seen a marked improvement in Nintendo's digital platforms, and Retro City Rampage DX makes a return trip in handheld form with some additional goodies in tow. Are they enough to warrant a second (or third, or fourth) purchase for those who already own the copy? Well, we can't quite promise you that, but we can say it's a must-play in some form, and if you haven't gotten around to it yet, there's no time like the present.

If you've read our review of the WiiWare game then you know more or less what to expect. Retro City Rampage DX doesn't deviate much from the original on the surface. You still take control of a protagonist simply named "Player" and guide him through a deliberately absurd storyline that involves time travel, organised crime, gorilla robots, and lots and lots of dead bystanders.

The humour is thick; in fact it's so thick that it can at first feel oppressive. However once you make it through the handful of training missions, the game opens up substantially, and you can keep both the comedy and the action rolling at your own pace. While some of the jokes tend toward the laughter of recognition rather than clever observation, other comic moments — such as an early chronological paradox and intentionally nonsensical dialogue — rely on a more intelligent sort of detached meta-awareness. It's a game that wants you to laugh both when someone slips on a banana peel, and then laugh again two hours after you've stopped playing it because some bit of subtle wordplay has finally clicked. Nobody will laugh at everything, but everybody will laugh at something.

Retro City Rampage takes the kitchen sink approach with both its comedic sensibilities and its gameplay. While the city-wide, open-ended anarchy is a clear homage to Grand Theft Auto — particularly the earliest titles in that series — there are sequences that deliberately ape classic games from Super Mario Bros. to Paperboy to Contra to Crazy Taxi.

And all of that is in the main game; further gameplay deviations come with optional mini-games, notably those based on fellow indie darlings Super Meat Boy and BIT.TRIP RUNNER. What's more, we haven't even scratched the surface. Listing every surprise lying in wait for gamers would not only spoil the fun, but it would require a review several pages long.

Player's humourously self-serving crime spree is simply a framework upon which to hang genuine, uninterrupted fun. If you want to master the mini-games and collect your rewards, you can do that. If you want to methodically work your way through the game's main objectives, you can do that. If you want to ignore everything entirely and go on a rocket-launcher rampage, you can do that, too. In fact, the game even scatters cheat codes around the city, to help you achieve the arsenal of your dreams without actually having to work for it.

There are extended missions requiring slow, carefully-considered movements, and seconds-long ones that encourage the immediate roasting of as many pedestrians as possible. It's easy to spend hours with it, and just as easy to limit yourself to minutes. Retro City Rampage doesn't seem to care if you "finish" the game or not; it simply wants you to enjoy yourself along the way, and if you're not interested in seeing the storyline through to its predictably absurd conclusion, it still offers enough to keep you busy otherwise.

But that's always been the case. The question is what the DX version on the 3DS adds to the mix. Funnily enough, one thing it doesn't add is 3D.

It does, however, feature all of the patches and upgrades that other versions of the game have received in the past year, smoothing out the gameplay a bit and balancing the difficulty a little better. More checkpoints have been added — making death less of a punishment — and weapons have been tweaked. Your movement while firing is now less limited, and there's a very welcome method of shaking the police simply by, well, killing them. If you clear all of those in pursuit and collect a small icon that they drop, you can go about your business without further hindrance. Considering how frequently you're likely to incur the wrath of the law, this is a nice change.

Unfortunately some of the tweaks rob the game of its original spirit. The punishing difficulty of the WiiWare title is one of the things that gave it identity. Like the similarly violent Hotline Miami, Retro City Rampage demanded perfection, but left it up to the player to decide what that perfection would look like. That is to say, it was always easy to die, but you also had a limitless array of solutions at your fingertips. You could run in with guns blazing if you were comfortable dodging the return fire, or you could pitch grenades and retreat if you weren't. You could sneak around enemies and escape undetected, or you could deliberately lead them away, lose them, and waltz over to your target undisturbed. Retro City Rampage didn't care how you handled yourself, so long as you did handle yourself.

Retro City Rampage DX, though, is a bit too forgiving. It's rare that you will die and end up much further back for it, meaning there's far less of the white-knuckled tactical urgency of the original game, and more blind experimentation in search of eventual luck. It's a change that will undoubtedly be welcomed by some players, but others will find Retro City Rampage DX less rewarding for the pulled punches.

One thing that is very nice, though, is the game's integration of the touch screen. While you can do nearly anything with the buttons, the simple fact that you have a nice map on display at all times is a huge navigational help, and it also adds an additional challenge to the game; glancing down to consult your map while you're speeding through the city is just as dangerous as that would be in real life. Take your eyes off the road long enough to orient yourself, and you may not be ready to react to the next obstacle or turn. It's a nice wrinkle that only works because of the second screen, and it allows Retro City Rampage DX to show a host of options and information at all times without cluttering up the playing area.

Ultimately, though, the main difference between this and the WiiWare version is simple: portability. While Retro City Rampage's throwback aesthetic felt very much at home on a couch with a controller in our hands, we found that it's just as welcome an experience on a handheld device, as it's suited for both quick bursts of gaming and longer, more involved sessions.

Retro City Rampage DX is pretty much everything it has to be. It's an improved version of an already strong game, and even if some of the tweaks can be considered downgrades, the portability, smoothness, excellent soundtrack and densely-packed humour come together to make this an easy recommendation for those who haven't yet had the pleasure of mowing down little pixel people in a stolen taxi cab.

Conclusion

Retro City Rampage DX is not quite a flawless version of the game, but it does improve somewhat upon an already solid foundation. With more forgiving gameplay that arguably saps some of its spirit and a complete lack of 3D, the biggest selling point here is going to be its portability. Fortunately that's a huge selling point, as Retro City Rampage lends itself to short bursts of cathartic chaos at least as well as it does to longer play sessions. If you have a 3DS and no version of the game already, this download should be a no-brainer. If you do already have a copy, then it's up to you how much the relatively minor tweaks are worth. Taken on its own merits, though, free from comparison to the earlier versions, it's hard to see Retro City Rampage DX as anything less than a deranged masterpiece.